The Department of Justice’s recent Yates Memo creates a new emphasis on individual accountability for corporate or entity wrongdoing. It also enhances the risk to corporate employees that they will need to choose between cooperating with an employer’s investigation—and potentially incriminating themselves—or asserting their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and risking their jobs. (For examples of this dilemma, see our posts here and here.)
But being fired for “taking the Fifth” is not a recent phenomenon.
In the last century, this issue arose in the 1950s, when employment contracts more commonly contained “good conduct” or “morals” clauses.
An employee who is accused of participating in corporate wrongdoing can face potentially life-changing choices almost immediately. When a company learns of alleged wrongdoing, it is likely to start an internal investigation into the misconduct. As part of the investigation, attorneys or other investigators will seek to interview those with relevant knowledge, including employees who are allegedly involved in the wrongdoing.
When that happens, the employees face a critical choice: do I stay silent, or do I talk to the investigators? If the employees refuse to talk, they could be fired; if they do talk, the government could use their statements against them in a criminal case.
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When a company learns that its employees may have done something unlawful, it should try to get the facts and figure out whether wrongdoing actually occurred. One way to do this is to conduct an internal investigation, in which attorneys or other investigators collect documents and interview employees to gather information about what happened.
But what happens when employees refuse to cooperate? Can they be fired and denied severance benefits that would otherwise have been due?
After a spate of horrific shootings at schools and businesses across the country, employers started conducting unannounced “active shooter” drills to train employees how to react if a murderous gunman shows up at their workplace. Unsurprisingly, some of these unannounced drills have gone awry.
In 2013, the Pine Eagle Elementary School in Halfway, Oregon, population 286, held an active shooter drill that was too much for its employees to bear. Now, Pine Eagle finds itself in the middle of a lawsuit in Oregon federal court, brought by former teacher Linda McLean.
It is the norm for high-achieving employees to strive for and tout their successes. Recently, however, one person’s novel reaction to failure—his own termination—may show a future employer as much about his character as any of his considerable accomplishments.
Sree Sreenivasan was plucked from Columbia’s School of Journalism a few years ago to become the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s chief digital officer. According to Quartz, Mr. Sreenivasan brought the famed museum into the digital age through inventive social outreach efforts and a revamped, mobile-friendly website.
Owners of stolen trade secrets now have another weapon in their arsenal.
Last month, President Obama signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act (the DTSA), which creates a new cause of action in federal court for the misappropriation of trade secrets. The DTSA does not preempt state laws governing misappropriation of trade secrets, so employers and other trade secret owners may now bring actions under the DTSA and applicable state laws. See 18 U.S.C. § 1838.
When a former officer or director of a company must defend against legal claims, advancement of legal fees by the company can be critical to a successful defense. The Delaware Chancery Court frequently addresses issues related to advancement of fees for former officers and directors. For example—as we discussed in this post—that court recently resolved a claim by former Vice President Al Gore and a colleague for advancement of legal fees, ruling that they were entitled to advancement from the company that bought their employer (Current Media) and assumed Current Media’s indemnification and advancement obligations, even though they had never worked for the purchaser
What happens when an employer tries to change the basis for terminating an employee?
Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts considered whether an employer could change the basis for the termination from “without cause” to “with cause” and withhold severance benefits otherwise owed the former employee. In EventMonitor, Inc. v. Leness, the employee won the battle, but the cost may have consumed the spoils of war.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a plaintiff-friendly decision resolving disagreements over the question of when a constructive discharge claim accrues. The lower courts didn’t agree on when the clock should start ticking on claims by employees that they were forced to quit, creating uncertainty for plaintiffs who faced the possibility that their claims would be barred by the statute of limitations if they didn’t sue soon enough.
As the regulatory and business environments in which our clients operate grow increasingly complex, we identify and offer perspectives on significant legal developments affecting businesses, organizations, and individuals. Each post aims to address timely issues and trends by evaluating impactful decisions, sharing observations of key enforcement changes, or distilling best practices drawn from experience. InsightZS also features personal interest pieces about the impact of our legal work in our communities and about associate life at Zuckerman Spaeder.
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